The Perils Of "Decapitating" Al Qaeda

Spencer Ackerman analyzes incoming Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's assertion that we're only twenty or so kills away from neutralizing al Qaeda:

Panetta has to know he’s flirting with an epic fail. The U.S. doesn’t have a great track record at judging progress against al-Qaida by pointing to terror leaders taken off the board. Somehow al-Qaida soldiers on even after the U.S. repeatedly kills whomever becomes its number-three leader. If Navy SEALs do another 20 double-taps and there’s another al-Qaida strike afterward, Panetta’s getting his face Photoshopped onto George W. Bush aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

But here’s a theory for what Panetta’s on about. (Yes, I’m being cheeky in calling this a “doctrine.”) Remember two of the most important aspects of his resume that got him his new job. As White House budget chief under Bill Clinton, he learned how to cut a budget, and as CIA director under Barack Obama, he learned how to hunt al-Qaida. A killing stroke against al-Qaida, goes one counterterrorism argument, requires doing both. And it just so happens to be a very politically convenient argument for the Obama administration.

Ackerman goes on to explain that he believes what the administration is aiming for is a drawdown in the U.S. "conventional" wars paired with an escalation in covert operations. This "cheaper" approach to counterterrorism will neutralize one of al Qaeda's other key strategies, forcing the U.S. to bankrupt itself through protracted military conflicts.

The issue of course, is that even if the U.S. does somehow arrest, kill or detain the "10 to 20 key leaders that between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM in North Africa" Panetta says are key to "strategically defeating al Qaeda," decapitation hasn't proved a particularly successful strategy for neutralizing terror groups in the past. As the Combating Terrorism Center's Bruce Hoffman wrote shortly after Osama bin Laden's death, "Decapitation has rarely provided a decisive end to a terrorist movement." Hoffman goes on to list a number of examples from Algeria, Palestine and Iraq, but the consistent theme in my view is that these groups reconstitute themselves despite the deaths of their leaders because the structural factors propelling terrorist movements remain unaltered.

Ackerman notes that "don’t for a second think Panetta’s talking about ending U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan," rather:

Panetta, in other words, wouldn’t be bringing the 9/11 Era to a close. He’d be guiding it for more of a soft landing. The U.S. slowly — verrrry slowly — pulls back from Afghanistan and Iraq; keeps small units, intelligence and strike capabilities there as insurance; and pots up the cheaper shadow wars to deliver the knockout punch. Counterterrorism will never be as cheap as terrorism, but at least under this model, it’d get more affordable.

Setting affordability aside, the question is really whether this approach will effectively deal with the underlying factors that cause terrorism in the first place, one of which is the ongoing presence of U.S. military forces in Muslim countries. If it doesn't, we're simply going to see al Qaeda reconstitute itself with younger leaders seasoned and trained on the battlefields the U.S. continues to provide for them.

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